Damned Spot

Parody to the People 

“Priceless Truth” was produced by North Woods Advertising for Nader for President. For a transcript of the ad, click.

From: William Saletan

To: Jacob Weisberg

Nader Video If Nader’s campaign is supposed to be about rethinking old models and shaking things up, this ad is a great start. It’s magnificently efficient. The opening 15 seconds and 26 words memorably convey every absurdity of the campaign-finance process: the gap between the political-participation entry fee and what an average person can relate to (“Grilled tenderloin for fundraiser: $1,000 a plate”), the explosion of advertising budgets and their damage to the process (“Campaign ads filled with half truths: $10 million”), and the invisible magnitude of the cost to taxpayers and good government ("Promises to special interest groups: Over $10 billion”). The numbers seem arbitrary (how do you determine what’s a special interest and which ads are filled with half-truths?), but even if they were cut in half, each point would stand. And even without the words, the visuals capture everything people hate about political fund-raising: the backslap, the shticky speech, the wink, the nod, the handshake.

Contrast ads, which are half-negative (about the opponent) and half-positive (about your candidate), generally separate at about 15 seconds. The trick is having enough time to drive home the negative message while leaving yourself enough time to wash out the bad taste and leave the viewer with a clear, positive impression of your candidate. This spot has the cleanest, most effective separation I’ve ever seen. The background music, “Hail to the Chief,” which conveys the pomp, emptiness, and hypocrisy of the Bush-Gore money race, grinds to a halt. There’s a magical moment of transitional silence as the scene shifts to Nader at his lonely desk, studiously poring over a document. My goodness! Someone is actually getting some work done around here!

I love the visuals in Nader’s office. His head is down, tuning out the lobbyists and the social scene, engrossed by the unglamorous facts on a plain piece of paper. The desk and shelves are piled with records. He’s the nerd studying at his carrel on Friday night while the frat boys party outside. Later, we see several shots of him in glasses. It’s Geek Chic. But the ad can’t end there. A presidential candidate needs to communicate some vitality. How do you project a lawyer and consumer-safety researcher as a man of action? That’s where the music shifts into high-gear percussion, and the images start flying: Nader as a young man, Nader taking the oath to testify, Nader framed by an American flag, Nader in front of the Capitol. In real life, Nader can sit at a hearing-room microphone for hours. In the ad, he’s there for a split-second in a series of fast-moving images.

The two mold-breaking elements of the ad are the closing imperative and the irony. The viewer is urged to vote for Nader, but only as an afterthought to a more immediate mission: “Without Ralph Nader in the presidential debates, the truth will come in last. Find out how you can help. Go to votenader.com.” This message recognizes that by itself, advertising won’t get Nader far. He needs a thermonuclear device that can parlay a small explosion into a big one. His best shot at such a device is getting into the Bush-Gore debates. So instead of running ads parallel to that effort, he aims the ads at it. This strategy probably won’t work, but it’s smart. A lot more people are willing to argue for letting Nader into the debates than are wiling to vote for him. A third-party candidate needs to advance one step at a time.

The other mold-breaking element is the spot’s reliance on parody. The entire first half is a joke. If you don’t like or get the joke, you tune out the rest of the ad. We’ve seen parody tried before, when the 1988 Dukakis campaign portrayed a bunch of Republican ad men sitting around talking about how to snooker viewers with gimmicks. That was a dismal failure. I think those ads failed in part because the satire was too heavy-handed and in part because an established political party has no credibility to make fun of the process. Nader has that credibility, and this ad has the light touch. And I don’t think he could have captured much attention or motivated many sympathizers if he had criticized fund-raising sleaze in his usual deadpan manner. This will be an interesting test of whether, in an age of incredulity, parody can accomplish what earnestness cannot.

From: Jacob Weisberg

To: William Saletan

Nearly all the political advertising I’ve ever seen is locked in a kind of pre-ironic, 1950s sensibility. You tout your candidate’s supposed virtues. Or you disparage the other guy’s vices. You try to use symbols and images to play upon the emotions of voters. But whatever you do, you play it straight, because politics is not supposed to be a laughing matter.

Bill Hillsman, the guy who produced this Nader spot, tosses these conventions overboard, creating something closer in sensibility to the high-concept type of commercial advertising we got used to in the 1990s. I don’t know if Hillsman is the greatest political adman of all time as his buddy Scott Shuger argues in this piece. What Hillsman does is so different from what his professional colleagues do that I’m not sure you can even compare them. The Bob Shrums of the world play hardball. Bill Hillsman shows up with a whiffle ball and performs a Saturday Night Live-style sendup of their game. But it’s genius in any case.

Hillsman’s ads are delightful because they throw out the ready-made conventions of the genre and start from scratch (though, as you point out, the Nader spot does follow the basic format of a “contrast” ad). The commercials of his that have become legend rely on two basic kinds of humor: parody and self-parody. Examples of Hillsman’s use of parody are a 1998 spot he made for a Democratic candidate for Minnesota governor named Doug Johnson, which sent up the Budweiser “frogs” commercial (instead of “Bud,” the frogs croak “Doug”) and his 1990 spot for Paul Wellstone’s Senate campaign, “Rudy and Me,” which satirized the movie Roger and Me (Wellstone scours Minnesota for the incumbent, Rudy Boschwitz, and can’t find him anywhere). Examples of Hillsman’s use of self-mockery include the hilarious commercials he created for Jesse Ventura’s 1998 campaign for governor of Minnesota. In one, Ventura models his body as Rodin’s thinker. In another, the most famous spot Hillsman has done, two boys play with a Jesse Ventura “action figure,” clobbering a “Special Interest Man” doll. The self-irony in these ads had the effect of inoculating Ventura against ridicule from others. Nobody could make worse fun of “The Body” than he made of himself in Hillsman’s ads.

“Priceless Truth” picks up where the Ventura ads left off. It combines both brands of Hillsman parody—a satire of a familiar piece of commercial advertising and an exercise in self-effacement on the part of the candidate. The ad is, of course, a goof on the saccharine MasterCard commercials. But halfway through, the sendup ends and the self-parody begins. It’s Ralph in an office stuffed with file boxes and manila file folders to the point of mania. The shot pokes gentle fun at Nader’s ascetic zealotry. As with Ventura and Wellstone, Hillsman casts Nader as a nonconformist who can laugh at himself. By making mild fun of his own wonkery, Nader neutralizes his own stereotype as a nerdy fanatic and turns it into a political asset.

This kind of advertising works for the kind of candidates Hillsman works for: political outsiders who are themselves calling the rules of the system into question. You’d be skeptical if such candidates ran conventional-type ads, because that kind of advertising is part of the corrupt political system they object to. By being clever, candidates like Wellstone, Ventura, and Nader can disarm their own complicity in it.

But I don’t think Hillsman’s ads are going to be widely imitated despite their wit and originality because this approach won’t work for the vast majority of major party candidates. If Hillsman produced ads for the Gore-Lieberman ticket, I imagine they’d seem off-pitch, like the Dukakis ad you refer to. Although it is fun to imagine what Hillsman might do with the account: Ivory Al Gore: 99.44 Percent Pure. Or perhaps a variation on the American Indian eating Levy’s rye bread: You Don’t Have To Be Jewish To Love Lieberman.